Change is constant, if often unwelcome, for the characters in Mike Birbiglia’s moving comedy ‘Don’t Think Twice’

October 4, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
Oct. 4, 2016

Mike Birbiglia’s 2016 comedy Don’t Think Twice is a touching look at a troupe of improvisational comedians whose performances belie their resistance to change.

When the movie begins, most of the members of the Commune are content with their lot in life. Their New York City improv group is popular, they eke out enough money to afford the basics of life — with a major assist from their side jobs, or, in one case, from her wealthy parents — and they’re satisfied with the artistic purity of their spontaneous comedic stylings.

The dean of the group is in some ways the happiest of the lot. Miles (comedian and This American Life contributor Birbiglia, who also wrote and directed the picture) beds an endless progression of his 20-something improvisational-comedy students by rolling out an effortless, almost automatic patter. But he’s convinced himself that he was this close to getting a slot of the popular TV show Weekend Live, an obvious analog for Saturday Night Live. His repressed frustration boils over when Jack (Keegan-Michael Key of the brilliant sketch-comedy show Key & Peele) is invited for an audition and hired as a junior writer-performer for the program.

Jack’s success has consequences for the rest of the gang, especially his girlfriend, fellow improvver Samantha (Gillian Jacobs, a regular on the sitcom Community), who balked at trying out for Weekend Live. As Jack devotes more and more of his life to the show, Sam retreats to the cocoon of the Commune. But that doesn’t offer the safety she envisioned after Miles asks her to take over his improv-conedy teaching duties.

Miles hands off the job because, fueled by jealousy over Jack’s success, he wants to spend some more time working on himself. That means preparing a “writing packet” — that is, submitting sketches that Jack promises to send up to Weekend Live’s producer in the hopes that he might decide to hire Jack’s former teacher.

But Miles is oblivious to a few important things. One is that some of his comrades are also trying to hook on with the show. Another is that Jack doesn’t wield nearly as much influence as his friends believe. What’s more, Miles finds himself distracted by the reappearance in his life of an old friend from high school on whom he’s had a long-standing crush. (I apologize, but I can’t remember, or find in a review, the name of this character or the actress who played her.)

Meanwhile, Bill (Chris Gethard) finds himself splitting his time between New York and Philadelphia, where his father is recuperating from a motorcycle crash. The troupe’s other two members are Lindsay (Tami Sagher), a trust-fund baby and marijuana fiend, and Allison (Kate Micucci, part of the hilarious comedy-music duo Garfunkel and Oates), a shy, inveterate doodler. They, like Bill and Miles, are consumed with envy over Jack’s success.

As all of this is going on, the five remaining members of the Commune are forced to prepare for the impending closure of the Brooklyn theater where the group has been performing for years. The need to clear out the old theater and find a new one gives the movie a hint of urgency that it otherwise might lack.

Bill gives voice to one of the movie’s themes as the characters clean out the store room that houses the Commune’s old costumes and props. “Your 20s are all about hope,” he muses gloomily. “Your 30s are all about how dumb it is to hope.”

It’s to the movie’s credit that while the characters’ problems are eventually resolved satisfactorily, if with varying levels of permanency, while making it clear that everyone still has some more room to learn and grow. Fortunately for the Commune, its members come to recognize that the skills honed by years of improvisation can also be applied off stage — a gentle lesson that those who watch Don’t Think Twice would do well to internalize.

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